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Thomas Heatherwick

“The Leonardo of Our Times”

Review of the talk by Anthea Streeter
on October 24th 2018
Anthea Streeter

The importance of the British designer, Thomas Heatherwick, has been recognised by his appearance on the front cover of the Telegraph Review, and subsequently in the Sunday Times magazine as one of the 100 influences of the 21st century.

One of his most noted designs was that of the Olympic Cauldron in 2012, when 204 copper kettles were created, into which 204 athletes each inserted 204 lit rods, one for each country represented at the Games.  At the end of the Olympics, each country took home their own rod.  That of the UK is now in the Museum of London.

I always assumed Thomas Heatherwick to be an architect, but he had no training in this field, and should be considered as a designer, who considers craft to be of great importance, together with an understanding of the materials with which he works.  As a student at Manchester Polytechnic, studying three dimensional design, he produced a Pavilion, of wood and polycarbonate, for which the inspiration was a dilapidated shed in Northumberland.  Graduating from college, he joined the Royal College of Art, where he met Terence Conran who became his mentor, and called him the “Leonardo da Vinci of our times”.

After graduating from the RCA, Heatherwick set up his own studio and workshop, which grew to employ 200 people, including architects, landscape artists and designers.  A published book, “Making” incorporates 150 of the studio’s projects.

After this introduction to her subject, Anthea described just some of Thomas Heatherwick’s projects, including the following.

greenhouses at Laverstoke Mill gin distillery

Greenhouses at the Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery, Laverstoke Mill
which we visited in 2017

Belsay Sitooterie in Northumberland.  This was a temporary building designed on the basis of a scrubbing brush, which flattens when pressed down.  Commissioned by English Heritage, the studio produced a steel-and-plywood box embedded with wooden rods or “hairs”.  They function as legs, which carry the structure’s weight.

Roll of Zip in 2000  Longchamp of Paris commissioned the Studio to create a zip bag, which was such a success that they asked him to design their new store in New York.  However, they only wanted to occupy the first floor of the building, which led to Thomas Heatherwick designing an entrance of a steel and rubber frame with polyester resin panels, leading from, in effect, just half of the shop front window.

UK Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010.  The Studio designed the “Seed Cathedral” as the UK’s pavilion, developed by exploring the relationship between cities and nature, and incorporating the Kew Gardens Seed Bank Partnership.  The structure consisted of over 60,000 25-foot acrylic optic fibres, which housed 60,000 seeds at the end of acrylic rods, held in place by geometrically cut holes with the rods inserted.  The pavilion won the gold medal for design.

Routemaster Bus  In contrast to his usual commissions, Heatherwick won a competition to design a bus to replace the old Routemaster.  The replacement had 3 doors, a low step for ease of access for disabled passengers, and was both bigger and aerodynamic.  The interior was much calmer than the old bus, with individual seat design.

The Learning Hub designed for the Nanyang Technology University in Singapore, with a theme of sociability and collaboration, with 56 rounded tutorial rooms stacked in 12 towers.  Each room can be re-configured.  There are no passages, but many balconies.  It had to be made of concrete, for environmental reasons, but it was pink, with patterns inset.  Chicken wire replaced glass in the stairwells.

V & A Waterfront in Cape Town  A grain storage building, built in 1921, was converted into an exhibition centre for the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, plus the Silo Hotel.  42 vertical concrete tubes were cut to create a central atrium and galleries, with reinforced glass capping the tubes for additional light.

Bund Finance Centre in Shanghai, comprises two 180-metre towers, which incorporate offices, a hotel and retail space.  The building is surrounded by a moveable curtain.

Paddington Basin  New bridges were necessary to cross the basin, and The Heatherwick Studio designed The Rolling Bridge, which unfolds every Friday at noon, across the Grand Union Canal.  Anthea played us a video of the bridge rolling up – fascinating!

Kings Cross – the Coal Drop Yard  A current project is the renovation of two buildings built in 1850 used to receive freight from the north.  The design stitches the buildings together by linking the two roofs, thus creating an additional storey, and the roofs shelter the yard below.  Heatherwick wanted to retain the industrial heritage of the site.

Without use of pictures of his designs, it has been slightly difficult to report on the work of Thomas Heatherwick, who has been a dynamic and creative force in design.  The talk by Anthea I found outstanding, both in her knowledge of her subject, her delivery and her use of slides and occasional videos.

Philip Akroyd

Related link

Heatherwick Studio which contains details and illustrations of all the projects mentioned above